Flu may not have killed most in 1918 pandemic

Thu Feb 5, 2009 3:51pm EST
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By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Strep infections and not the flu virus itself may have killed most people during the 1918 influenza pandemic, which suggests some of the most dire predictions about a new pandemic may be exaggerated, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

The findings suggest that amassing antibiotics to fight bacterial infections may be at least as important as stockpiling antiviral drugs to battle flu, they said.

Keith Klugman of Emory University in Atlanta and colleagues looked at what information is available about the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed anywhere between 50 million and 100 million people globally in the space of about 18 months.

Some research has shown that on average it took a week to 11 days for people to die -- which fits in more with the known pattern of a bacterial infection than a viral infection, Klugman's group wrote in a letter to the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

"We observed a similar 10-day median time to death among soldiers dying of influenza in 1918," they wrote.

People with influenza often get what is known as a "superinfection" with a bacterial agent. In 1918 it appears to have been Streptococcus pneumoniae.

"Neither antimicrobial drugs nor serum therapy was available for treatment in 1918," Klugman's team wrote.

Now there are also vaccines that protect against many different strains of S. pneumoniae, which cause infections from pneumonia to meningitis.   Continued...

<p>An emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, for soldiers sickened by the 1918 flu. REUTERS/National Museum of Health and Medicine/Armed Forces Institute of Pathology/Handout</p>